Your Personal Best – Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa

UPDATED: May 5, 2009
PUBLISHED: May 5, 2009

Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa had barely slept. The neurosurgeon
at Johns Hopkins University had been in surgery
through the wee hours of the morning and was seeing
his three children for the first time in a week. He really
could use more rest, but he had a commitment; he was
set to speak with a group of high-school students about
his journey from a poor childhood in Mexico to one of
the most renowned medical facilities in the world. So,
he wrangled his brood into the car, and headed back to
Johns Hopkins to meet just a dozen students.

Dr. Q—as he’s known to colleagues—says this is the price of
success. “I could easily call in and say, ‘Sorry, I won’t be able to make
it,’ ” says Quiñones, 51. “But that’s the difference between being
responsible and wanting it, and not wanting it. What I want is to
make this a better place for all of us to live.… The sacrifice that I
make is I push my body to the limit, I push my brain to the limit.”

Quiñones learned the value of hard work early, working at the
age of 5 at his father’s small gas station outside the border town of
Mexicali. “[Child labor] is unheard of in the United States, but it was
part of what we did,” he says. “I don’t regret any of that. That made
me who I am today.”

Unlike his father who only made it to second grade and his mother
who reached sixth grade before quitting school, Quiñones realized
education provided the path to a better life. He remembers waking
daily at 4:30 a.m. to catch the bus to school, and he had to hitchhike
or walk home in the afternoon. His persistence paid off, and he
graduated high school near the top of his class.

In spite of his best efforts, the devaluation of the peso in 1976
nearly crippled his lower-middle-class family. As the oldest of five
children, he took odd jobs to help put food on the table. “Hope was
not part of the dialect that we had,” he says.

Desperate to do better for himself and his family, Quiñones decided
on his 19th birthday to cross the border. “All I wanted to do was make
a little bit of money to put food on the table, and I was planning to
go back to my country,” he says. “People come to the United States
because they want to fulfill their dream.… All I wanted was a place to
work, and I found much more than that.”

Quiñones found work picking produce in central California. He
constantly looked for opportunities, scrimping on food and clothes
to save most of his pay, carrying an English dictionary he studied
daily, learning skills like driving a tractor and servicing engines that
qualified him for a temporary work permit.

After a year, he had enough of farm work and got a rail yard job
loading sulphur and fish lard, which paid enough for him to attend
college at night. In the meantime, he received his resident visa or
“green card” in 1989. Quiñones studied English, science and math
at San Joaquin Delta College (where he met his future wife, Anna),
tutoring other students along the way to earn extra money.

Quiñones graduated with his associate degree in 1991 and was
accepted to the University of California, Berkeley. Then, inspired
by his mentor, Hugo Mora, an administrator who ran the Hispanic
Center of Excellence, and by the memory of his grandmother as
a town healer, Quiñones decided to become a doctor, applied to
Harvard Medical School—and was accepted.

Although many people he meets are amazed to hear about this
rapid ascension, Quiñones holds that there’s no secret to his success.
“I think we all can do it. The question is, who is willing to sacrifi ce?
And by that, I mean: Who is willing to sacrifice nights without sleep?
Who is willing to sacrifice days without eating? Who is willing to
sacrifice times without seeing your family—months or years?
And that’s really what it comes down to.”

He describes his drive to succeed this way:
When you go into a room that is absolutely dark and they close
the door behind you, the challenge is to find the switch and turn
the light on. Some have an innate ability to remain calm and find
the switch. They put one foot in front of another. I knew I could
do it if I worked hard and put passion in what I did. I kept all my
senses in a hyperacute state until I found that switch, which was
becoming a brain surgeon. I have always remained open to opportunities
and open to challenges. You have to focus on the reward
that comes after the difficulty—keep your eyes on the prize.

One of the most challenging phases of his journey was his
residency at the University of California, San Francisco. “The
most difficult thing is to realize that no matter what you do, no
matter how much effort you put in to save a human life, at the
end of the day, you cannot defeat nature,” he says. “I realized
that no matter what I did, life would escape me sometimes.”

He was working more than 120 hours a week and was home
so little that his children called the hospital “Daddy’s house.”
The emotional, psychological and physical demands almost
overwhelmed him. “But I overcame it,” he says. “I turned all the
negative energy into positive energy. It’s all a learning process.”

Today, as an associate professor of neurosurgery and
oncology, Quiñones is the director of the brain tumor
program at the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus.
Despite his standing and achievements, though,
he still encounters patients who hear his
accent and question his qualifications. And,
although he became a citizen in 1997,
Quiñones meets those who resent the fact
that he entered the country illegally. But
such prejudice doesn’t faze him. It fuels
him: “I try to work harder; I try to make
contributions to our society. Only time
will tell the truth. I can’t make people
change their mind. I just go down to the
basic principles of hard work and try to be
a good human being.”

To ensure that his children also understand
the value of hard work, Quiñones
involves them in events, such as his talk with
the students, and his kids have their share of
chores around the house. Quiñones thinks he’s
getting through: Recently, his son saved $13
and donated it to brain cancer research.

Ultimately, the goal of Quiñones’ years of
work and sacrifice is not personal gratification.
Everything he does is a way of giving
back to the country that gave him the
chance to be something more, he says.

“I have to believe that what I do as an
academician, as a brain scientist, as a
cancer researcher is someday going to
touch millions of lives. I have to believe
that what I do as a father will have an
effect on our society, because I recognize
that my most important contribution…
is what I do as a father for my children
and what I do as a mentor for my students
who I meet every day. That, I have to believe,
is really going to change the world.”

Chelsea Greenwood has been contributing to print and online publications as an editor and writer for more than 10 years. A University of Florida graduate, she is the editor of a lifestyle magazine in South Florida.